My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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What is the real proof of love?

FlanneryoconnorBecause I’m on a Flannery O’Connor kick, I ordered A Memoir of Mary Ann, by the Dominican Nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta (1961).

These nuns ran a free cancer home, where Mary Ann Long came to live at age 3. She had a cancerous tumor on her face; one eye had been removed. By the time she died, the tumor had grown so much that she couldn’t eat. She was only supposed to survive six months, but she lived to be twelve.

She must have been quite an extraordinary child. After her death, the nuns approached O’Connor, to try to persuade her to write an account of the little girl. She wouldn’t do it, but she helped shepherd their manuscript to publication and wrote an introduction to it – which is why I happened to hear about it.

It’s an interesting book for several reasons, but what struck me most was the observation, “Apparently [Mary Ann] knew at that early age that the proof of real love is sacrifice.”

That sentence stopped me in my tracks. It’s another way of expressing one of my favorite happiness precepts – Reverdy’s “There is no love, there are only proofs of love” – but more blunt. I asked myself: am I showing my love through sacrifice?

I know that sounds preachy and dramatic, but it’s a good question.

In my life, day to day, that mostly means sacrificing my time, attention, and convenience.

Am I putting down my book to listen to a convoluted account of last night’s bad dream? Am I putting down my magazine to “Watch, watch, watch!” for the tenth time? Am I cheerfully agreeing to pick something up, drop something off, look something up, or re-schedule some date? Am I swallowing my impulse to nag, to criticize, to complain, to point out mistakes?

Not very often. And I sure load myself lots of gold stars when I do. Speaking of nuns, St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “When one loves, one does not calculate,” and I’m still trying to shake the habit of counting up all my sacrifices to make sure I get my share in return. “You got to take a nap, so I get to go to the gym.” “I’m dealing with the packing, so you have to deal with the car.”

But there’s a fine line with sacrifice. Sacrificing too much is not good.

My Second Splendid Truth is: One of the best ways to make YOURSELF happy is to make OTHER PEOPLE happy; one of the best ways to make OTHER PEOPLE happy is to be happy YOURSELF.

If I sacrifice too much (realistically, not too much risk of that), if I don’t make sure I have enough time to read the newspaper, etc., it’s going to be hard for me to make anyone else very happy. Having fun and feeling energized make it easier to sacrifice for other people. It might not even feel like a sacrifice.

I loved reading the comments on yesterday’s post, to see the life symbols people use: lion, phoenix, daisy, water drop, labyrinth, and all the rest. If you need ideas, or if you just like great lists, a reader thoughtfully posted the link to a website Universal Symbols that lists dozens.

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Begin YOUR happiness project! Need help getting started? Identify a symbol for yourself and your happiness project.

PeacockA new theme for the Happiness Project is to spur everyone to do a happiness project, too. Happiness projects for everyone! I am the happiness evangelist.

Only recently did I start thinking about it this way – even though implicit in the idea of keeping this blog is the desire to help other people learn from my happiness project. Now, though, I’m going to start explicitly addressing the question of how people can design their own.

I need to figure out a systematic way to do this, but until then, I’ll just throw out some provocative suggestions.

I was thinking about a life symbol – or what should it be called? personal symbol? imago? figuration? – I mean the symbol you adopt for yourself and your happiness project.

Without giving it much thought, I picked my symbol as the bluebird, because the bluebird is a symbol for happiness.

I believe this connection comes from the wonderful Maeterlinck play (later made into a Shirley Temple movie), The Blue Bird, where two children look for the Blue Bird of happiness.

I’ve been thinking about life symbols lately, because I’ve been immersing myself in Flannery O’Connor’s work.

Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and her fiction is filled with symbols, often with religious significance. About symbols, she wrote, “I think the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once…The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest.”

Now consider: in life, O’Connor loved peacocks. Because she was in very poor health, she lived on a farm with her mother, and she raised peacocks there.

But peacocks aren’t just peacocks. As she pointed out in a letter, the peacock is the symbol for the Transfiguration, and in medieval symbology, for the Church—the eyes are the eyes of the Church.

So picture Flannery O’Connor, writing her books, meditating on the mysteries of religion and fiction, close to death, surrounded by peacocks. It would seem like unbelievably heavy-handed symbolism, if it weren’t true.

The peacock symbol is extended by others – peacocks illustrate many of the covers of books published after her death.

O’Connor loved birds from a very young age. Did she choose to surround herself with peacocks partly because of their symbolism? Who knows? But it’s thrilling that she did.

I was intrigued to read that symbols for Buddha include an empty seat, a pillar of fire, a tree, and a pair of footprints – images that signify that he has gone beyond form.

Bridge, skyscraper, candle, river, poppy, library…the value of thinking about a personal symbol comes from the fact that it requires us to think of our lives metaphorically. Keats wrote, “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life…a life like the scriptures, figurative.”

It’s difficult, but surprisingly fun. I hit on the blue bird without much thought, but I like it.

If you conceive of your life symbol, please post it – I’d love to see people’s choices. And if you can think of a more lyrical name than “life symbol,” please suggest it! That phrase is so flat and banal. Though I’m starting to think “imago” might work.

If you love words, neologisms, obscure vocabulary, etc., check out Wordie. I was excited that my post about darshan was mentioned by a fellow reader.

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This Wednesday: Five tips to avoid having an office affair.

AffairEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 5 tips to avoid having an office affair.

A few nights ago, a friend told me an interesting story. When she’d started her job at a major financial institution, a family friend, who also worked there, pulled her aside to give her some advice about avoiding having an affair.

Many of the people who worked at their firm had affairs, he said. He’d seen it himself. And lots of marriages broke up. His own marriage had stayed strong for thirty years, and he wanted to tell her the five rules he’d always followed to make sure he’d never be tempted.

1. Never take a first step in flirtation, even in jest.

2. Never have more than one drink with people from work. If that.

3. Never confide details from your personal life to people from work, and don’t allow them to confide in you.

4. Never allow yourself to have a “special friend” of the opposite sex (sometimes called a “work spouse”) to whom you turn for particular support.

5. Unless it’s an unmistakably professional context, don’t meet alone with a colleague or client of the opposite sex. E.g, when a client calls with tickets for the U.S. Open, don’t go in a twosome.

He explained the reasoning behind his advice.

He’d seen the same thing happen over and over. There comes a time in every marriage, he said, when a couple doesn’t get along very well. This period might even last several years. Difficult kids, difficult in-laws, difficult schedules, health worries, money worries, and all the rest can create a lot of conflict.

If you have an intimate friend at work, someone who knows you very well, and understands your troubles, and appreciates you properly, and can offer you a sympathetic, conflict-free refuge from your annoying spouse, the temptation to turn to that person is very strong.

Or if you’re alone at night with someone, or out drinking – you might give in to a sudden impulse.

Now, some of this advice conflicts with the happiness research. For instance, as Penelope Trunk discussed in a post on Brazeen Careerist, studies show that people who have good friends at work are happier than people who don’t, and Tip #3, in particular, would make it hard to have a real friend.

Nevertheless, thinking back to my days working in an office, I think there’s some real value to these injunctions. They’re worth thinking over, to adapt to each person’s particular situation.

My friend has been working at that major financial institution for a couple of years now. “Are a lot of people really having affairs?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” she said. She lives by those rules herself — except #3, sometimes she breaks #3. She’s a very friendly person, so she can’t really stop herself from having those kind of conversations.

I’ve had a lot of trouble with spam lately. If you emailed me to ask for a copy of my resolutions chart, you should have gotten an email back from me by now. If you haven’t, your message must have been lost in the chaos, so just shoot me another email. Or send me a message if you’ve now decided that you’d like a copy.

To thwart spammers, here is a convoluted version of my address: the first part is grubin. Then put in that familiar symbol. The second part is gretchenrubin. Then comes the period, then the com.

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How a fire station marked the anniversary of September 11.

September 11 is an important day, especially here in New York City.

On my way to a meeting this afternoon, I passed by a firehouse on the Upper West Side.


Outside the station, a quiet little shrine had been set up, with flowers and candles to mark the day. It seemed absolutely fitting and right. I saw passersby pause in front of it, to look at what was there.


For me, among many other things, of course, September 11th is a reminder to feel grateful for every ordinary day, to realize how precious and fragile life can be. It can change; it will change.

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